Obulala an Amani

Man made river dries up

By Joe Ombuor, Sept 4 2009
As the Government dithers and waffles over the fate of the besieged water towers, one of the country’s landmarks - the 26km Yatta furrow has run dry.

More shocking is that Thika River from which the furrow, built with Mau Mau labour in 1955 draws its water is down to a trickle. Residents say they have never seen such a spectacle before.

As a result, thousands of Yatta residents who relied on the furrow for irrigation and domestic use peer into a hopeless future as their crops wither and watering their animals becomes a nightmare punctuated with long treks to the Athi and Tana rivers that still have some water.

Both the Thika and Chania rivers rise from the Aberdare range, which saw lots of destruction before it was fenced off to stop further human encroachment.

Also rising from the Aberdares are the Gilgil and Malewa rivers that feed the spectacular lake Naivasha, famed the highest of the Great Rift Valley lakes.

The tourist hotels that flourish on the lake’s beauty are endangered by the falling water levels that could spell doom for the large bird population that attracts watchers from all over the world.

But it is in Lake Nakuru, a bird sanctuary touted as the greatest ornithological spectacle on earth, that the wanton destruction of water towers is most pronounced following the drying up of the Njoro river that flow from the Mau forest.

A direct repercussion of the destruction on the lake and Nakuru National Park is the recent relocation of white rhinos to Nairobi national park, 200km away.

With the impending demise of this lake in the wake Mau destruction, the millions of flamingos known to turn the lake pink will soon be something of the past.

To the north of Lake Nakuru, are lakes Baringo and Bogoria also fed by rivers from the Mau that have since ceased to flow with dire consequences on the lake’s survival. For, without lake Baringo, the Njemp, the only pastoral people who also fish are much the poorer.

The badly stifled Mau also gives rise to the Mara River that is the heart and soul of the world famous Masai Mara National Reserve and the Serengeti in neighbouring Tanzania, both critically affected by the dropping water levels directly linked to the destruction of the water tower.

The reducing waters of the Mara do not only spell doom for the tourist industry that is a major foreign exchange earner, but carries with it security implications of great magnitude.

Already, the Maasai are threatening to take the law into their hands and march into the forest to evict squatters if the Government continues dilly-dallying over the issue, a threat that reeks with bloodshed.

Clashed over water

Remember Enoosupukia and the hundreds of lives that were lost? or Maai Mahiu where pastoralist Maasai and Kikuyu clashed over water. Clashes to save the Mara, if they happen, would be many times as deadly.

And as we destroy the Mau and other water towers, reduced water volumes have adversely affected the country’s capacity to generate electricity with the result that we have to pay more for power. The recently launched multi-billion shilling Sondu Miriu Hydroelectric project could be but a white elephant if destruction on the Mau continues.

Source: Standard Media

Rare animal photographed for the first time

The animal is so shy it has not been seen in its natural habitat for 50 years by conservationists

Kinsasha, Sept 12 2008
Congo's endangered okapi, so shy it has not been seen in its natural habitat for 50 years by conservationists, has been photographed in the wild for the first time, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) said today. The okapi, which has stripes like a zebra and a black tongue like a giraffe, lives exclusively in the eastern forests of Democratic Republic of Congo, an area gripped by a decade-old armed conflict and plagued by rampant poaching. “To have captured the first ever photographs (in the wild) of such a charismatic creature is amazing, and particularly special for ZSL given that the species was originally described here over a century ago,” Dr Noelle Kumpel, ZSL’s Bushmeat and Forests Conservation Programme Manager, said in a statement.

Two years ago, rangers in Congo’s Virunga National Park began discovering tracks and droppings believed to be those of the okapi. Elusive species The exact population status of the elusive species is unknown, largely because access to its natural habitat is limited by poor infrastructure and the presence of armed groups. “They were discovered in 1908, but there was no evidence of them after 1958,” Emmanuel de Merode, head of the Virunga Park where the photos were taken, told Reuters. “For us it’s quite a big deal,” he added. The photos were taken by remote camera traps set by ZSL and Congo’s Institute for Nature Conservation as part of a new study of the okapi, Thierry Lusenge, a member of the survey team said. “We have already identified three individuals, and further survey work will enable us to estimate population numbers and distribution in and around the Park, which is a critical first step in targeting conservation efforts,” he said. The Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest nature reserve and one of only three protected areas believed to be inhabited by okapis, is also home to endangered mountain gorillas and rare savannah elephants. (Reuters)

Scientists and lobby groups continue to differ on ‘designer foods'

By John Mbaria, Environment Correspondent, Nairobi Oct 13 2007

During the debate on the controversial Biosafety Bill 2007 that went through the Second Reading in Parliament on Thursday,  MPs were reported to have voiced concerns over the introduction of extraneous issues that were not covered by the Bill.


Science and Technology minister Dr Noah Wekesa who is fronting the Biosafety Bill. Photo/ FILE

MPs have been criticised for introducing alien and invasive species like the water hyacinth; cloning of humankind and the risks some Kenyans might have been exposed to in earlier Aids trials to the Bill fronted by Cabinet minister Dr Noah Wekesa. “This Bill has nothing to do with Aids trials or the other matters raised by MPs in Parliament… It is basically about enabling the introduction and commercialisation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the country,” said Josphat Ngonyo, the director of Africa Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW).

First published in 2005, the Bill provides for the safe entry of GMOs into the country. It calls for the establishment of the National Biosafety Authority and sets out the latter’s powers and responsibilities in regulating research, importation and commercialisation of GMOs.  Once enacted, it is expected to ensure the safe handling, use and transfer of these products.

But there are polarised views on its pros and cons. Championing one side of the debate has been the Kenya Biodiversity Coalition, an organisation composed of 43 NGOs, farmer associations, consumer and community groups.  Though the group has said it supports an effective and powerful biosafety law to regulate GMOs, it has decried the “intentional scheme” to weaken the Bill so that the importation and commercialisation of GMOs can be “hussle-free.” 

The coalition also takes issue with the very process of preparing the Bill saying it did not incorporate the views of farmers and ordinary Kenyans but rather took a “boardroom approach”.  In a recent advertiser’s announcement in the Daily Nation, the group said the Bill leaves no room for Kenyans to debate whether or not they ought to accept GMOs here. 

The group also says the Bill does not ask importers of GMOs to label them appropriately, neither does it deal with the safety of pharmaceutical products or food aid entering the country.  Members say it is too lenient on those who might release a GMO that  harms public health or the environment. They are urging the Government to withdraw it from Parliament. An equally vocal pro-GM lobby also published a whole page advertisement countering what the opponents of the Bill say. 

Operating under the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF), the lobby led by Norah Olembo and Florence Wambugu, both  leading scientists in related fields deny that plucking genes from one set of organisms and pumping them into different organisms is morally wrong.  They say GMOs are a reality today and that it is safer for Kenya to be prepared for their entry by passing the Biosafety Bill, 2007.  Other groups have taken a middle-ground position, arguing that what matters is for the Government to promote the interest and safety of the public.

“This is because many GM crops are designed to produce one or more toxins which make it possible for the relevant plants to kill off destructive pests on their own,” said a researcher at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) who declined to be named.  The researcher added that consuming crops with such toxins over a long time could cause allergies. The toxins may have medium and long-term effects on other living organisms and particularly useful insects in the environment.  He argued that such concerns are not far-fetched because the world has only been cultivating and consuming GM products for slightly over a decade. 

But many other scientists believe that Kenyans should not entertain blanket condemnation of genetic engineering. They say it has enabled humanity to develop artificially produced insulin, a much-needed hormone for diabetics to break down sugar in their bodies.  Although both sides of the debate have stated that food insecurity is the biggest challenge facing Africa, the pro-GM lobby has argued that technology – particularly manipulation of plant and animal genes – might be the panacea for food insecurity. 

In its website, Kari says it is currently undertaking GM-seed research to combat the problems that hamper profitable agricultural research in Kenya – disease, pest, droughts and poor seeds.  Kari’s research, which has centred on GM-maize, sorghum, cotton and sweet potatoes, is jointly undertaken with international research institutions and giant biotech companies from the US and elsewhere.  The aim, Kari says, is to produce seeds that are resistant to pests, weeds such as striga, droughts and others that are fortified with alien proteins. 

Those opposed to ‘designer’ farming have asked scientists to  address the fear of a likelihood that cultivating GM-crops might lead to decimation of such useful insects as bees and butterflies.  “We risk a possibility of poor farmers being at the mercy of Western companies selling expensive inputs, if we start growing GM-crops,” said Ngonyo. Mr Ngonyo wonders why key financiers have given a wide berth to organic farming in Africa, yet international markets are desperately in need of organic products.


Tree-planting the answer to chronic floods of Budalang’i

By Peter Ng'etich, Sept 20 2007

Flooding in Budalang’i in western Kenya could be a thing of the past once re-afforestation of Cherangany Forest is completed. The replanting of trees on 100 hectares at the source of River Nzoia will reduce the speed of water flowing downhill, thus decreasing the adverse effects of the water downstream. Budalang’i frequently suffers floods even when it has not seen any rain. This is because River Nzoia bursts its banks at its lower end because of excess water from Cherangany Forest and the surrounding areas, more than 300 kilometres away.

When it rains in the degraded forest, rain water finds its way into River Nzoia in a few hours, causing flooding in western Kenya. If the trees in the forest were intact, rain water would slowly percolate into the soil and find its way into the river system days after the rains, which means that the speed at which the river flows would be naturally controlled by vegetation. But rampant felling of trees in the hilly forest, which is the source of the river, means that the speed of water has increased over time.

The volume of the river increases drastically during the wet season and falls during the dry season. Community Development Trust Fund (CDTF), through the Community Environment Facility (CEF), is seeking to reclaim the forest’s glory. Working in partnership with the Kenya Forest Service, the ministry of Agriculture, the Water Resource Management Authority and the local community, the fund is using Sh27.9 million from the European Union to focus on environmental conservation and poverty reduction. The fund will contribute Sh22.8 million while other partners and the local community is to contribute Sh5.1 million in labour.

In the project expected to take three years, the fund will support the Kenya Forest Service to carry out forest boundary surveys to identify the most degraded forest blocks. The project started this year and is expected to end in 2010. The campaign aims at improving the management of the affected blocks in Trans Nzoia, West Pokot and Marakwet districts by averting further encroachment on the forest. Cherangany Forest is a source of several rivers and a major water catchment area for rivers Moiben, Chebororwa, Chepkaitit, Chebai and Kapterit which feed River Nzoia. It is also the home of tributaries that feed the Turkwel and Kerio rivers.

Cherangany is an important water catchment as it sits between lakes Victoria and Turkana basins. Its stream to the west feeds the Nzoia water system, which flows into Lake Victoria, while the streams to the east flow to the Kerio River system. River Nzoia traverses five districts in western Kenya and three in the North Rift. Its water is used by the Pan Paper Mills and Nzoia, Mumias and West Kenya Sugar companies. A study by Nature Kenya and National Museums of Kenya indicated that illegal logging, forest grazing, cultivation and fires caused by honey gatherers have caused soil erosion on the slopes of Cherangany hills, with most of the soil being washed into River Nzoia.

The lower parts of the hills near the river have been converted into farmlands in the past 20 years, leaving no terraces to hold the soil. The report says hundreds of cattle roam in the forest during the dry season, causing enormous damage. This is because as the population outside the forest increases, pasture land diminishes and pressure on the forest rises. “There is soil erosion occurring inside the forest reserves and private land and this is caused by overgrazing and illegal cultivation on steep slopes.”

Mr Solomon Ngari, the fund’s technical officer for environment, says the first step would be to engage the local people, the Kenya Forest Service and other stakeholders to establish forest restoration programmes. Other measures include developing sustainable alternative livelihoods for the communities living around the forest, adopting better farming practices that are friendly to the environment, and initiating aggressive campaigns and education to get the communities to understand that the forest needs them as much as they need it. The project is expected to benefit more than 35,000 people. Communities will receive 500 beehives, 10 pairs of harvesting gear, one honey processor and training in business management for 20 bee keepers.

The project is expected to generate income for the local people from the sale of trees and tree seedlings from community-run nurseries.  Forest blocks that are heavily degraded and are to be given special attention through this project include Koisungur, Toropket, Chemurkoi, Tenden, Kipteber, and Chebiemit.Mr Ngari said the community living in Chebororwa had established a tree nursery with over 5,000 seedlings to reclaim the forest. The fund is to help scale-up such initiatives. The project aims to stop the sharp rise in River Nzoia’s level during the rainy season and its drastic fall during the dry season since many people depend on its water for sustenance.

Source: Nation

Who'll save Kakamega forest

Herbalist Charles Miheso has for decades harvested medicinal plants at the Kakamega forest. He has been in the business for the past 30 years. To him, the forest is life because of the vegetation which is his source of livelihood.

A herbalist picks leaves at the Kakamega forest and, right, 350-year-old umbrella tree (Maesopsis eminii) stands resolutely in the middle of the southern part of Kakamega forest. Said to be the oldest TREE in the forest, the locals call it Mama Muteret and it is 47 metres tall and about a metre in diameter. But now even the kingly tree is threatened by loggers. Photos/STEPHEN AGWATTA and ELLY WAMARI
He learnt the trade from his father who became a herbalist at an early age and continued practising until 1990 when he retired at the age of 89. “My father knew the forest well and plucked all his medicines from there,” says Mr Miheso.

The 55-year-old has a huge supply of herbs for use by his patients. And business has recently improved, with an increase in demand for herbal medicines by the residents.

Like Mr Miheso, the forest is the source of livelihood for Mama Bibian Makonjio. The elderly woman frequently sneaks into it to collect firewood for sale despite the risk of arrest by forest guards. “If I do not take the risk my children will go hungry,” she says as she carries home a huge bundle of firewood. 

For the two villagers news of recent scientific findings that the forest could be depleted in the next 50 years makes little sense. At a recent workshop in Kakamega town, a group of international researchers warned that the forest, with its captivating and breathtaking beauty, is threatened with depletion unless urgent steps are taken to stop the plunder of its resources.

The cuckoo hawk

The forest cover could rapidly dwindle from the current 108 square kilometres to less than 20 square kilometres within five decades if the level of degradation is not checked. The forest is famous for its more than 400 bird species, including the pink-backed and grey herons, the African black duck, the harrier hawk, the little sparrow and the cuckoo hawk. It is also home to various butterfly species and monkeys, and continues to attract researchers from far and wide.

The unique monkey species include the Debraza, which is found at Kisera, a part of the forest manned by the Kenya Wildlife Service, as well as the blue and red-tailed types and the bush baby. Other primates are the Potto monkey and the baboon. The forest bestrides the border of Kakamega and Vihiga districts and was gazetted as a national heritage in 1964. It harbours the Buyangu national reserve and Kisere as well as nature reserves at Isecheno and Yala. 

Parts are intact, but human activity has interfered with much of the natural forest. Besides the trees, it has patches of natural grassland.  According to a team of researchers involved in a project funded by the German government for the conservation and management of the biodiversity, the forest is threatened from all corners due to over-exploitation of its resources. 

The team made public their findings at a recent workshop on biodiversity monitoring and analysis in Kakamega town. The forest plays the important role of attracting rain and acting as a wind-breaker. Communities living around it have benefited by harvesting herbs with a medicinal value and honey as well as grazing their livestock and growing food crops in parts they have encroached on.

The forest forms an important segment of the western tourism circuit, attracting visitors from all over the world. 

But its splendour and glamour could be lost to future generations if nothing is done to pre-empt the grim forecast by researchers. Although the predictions are based on scientific projections, the local people do not envisage a situation in which the reality will dawn on them. For them the forest they have co-existed with is there to stay and any talk of its depletion is but a myth. 

The communities are aware of the campaign to conserve and protect the forest’s biodiversity and are fully involved in the programmes, but they remain sceptical about the scientific data presented to them.  But the scientists warn that it is only a matter of time before the full impact of the degradation is felt.  They have been involved in the research to recommend steps to be taken for the conservation of the forest — an extension of the Congo rain forest. 

For Prof Klaus Frohberg and his team, it is a race against time as they grapple to stop the plunder that could have disastrous climatic consequences. The predications were presented by Dr Daniel Mueller, a member of the research team, who has been trying to establish the level of degradation.

In his report, he outlines factors behind the depletion, which include wood extraction for domestic and commercial use, grazing of livestock and the growing demand for land by the local communities. Population growth, high poverty levels and demand for forest products are cited as the main factors.

According to data obtained from satellite images, the forest has decreased by 8 square kilometres in the past 12 years — between 1989 and 2001— and it is projected that by 2049 only 68 square kilometres will be left. Parts of the forest which have been protracted but have not been spared from the plunder include Kakamega, Kisere, and Malava Kaimosi in Vihiga district.

Dr Mueller says that although deforestation shows signs of slowing down in recent years in some parts, the cover continues to disappear. It is estimated that parts which have been destroyed could take up to 75 years to be restored. But there is a glimmer of hope as the campaign to save the forest gathers momentum. The German ministry of Education and Research has released 10 million euros (Sh930 million) in the last six years to fund the ongoing research.

Dr Mueller sums up his prediction thus: “The future of the forest is uncertain. The natural forest continues to decrease? a rather pessimistic view but it’s useful to illustrate what might happen in future.” But according to the project coordinator, Dr John Mburu, the campaign is beginning to bear fruit. “Although the scenario looks grim, there are issues of benefit which can be addressed to get communities living around the forest on board the campaign to reverse the destruction,” he says.

He adds that 30 per cent of families around to the forest extract firewood from it to the tune of Sh2.8 million annually, 37 per cent rely on the medical plants and 29 per cent graze their animals. “The dependency on the forest per family translates to Sh30,000 a year, with 34 per cent of the people relying directly on the forest for a livelihood,” he says.

The call on donors to intervene and to save the forest is gathering pace and currently the German researchers are working on a policy document to be presented to the Kenya government for possible adoption.  Prof Frohberg says a report on the progress of the campaign has been submitted to the Government. 

Project’s third phase

A proposal for the third phase of the project targeting capacity building for the communities has been forwarded to the German government for approval, but the report has to be resubmitted to include a component on climate change. Prof Frohberg says that although several studies have been conducted on ways to conserve the forest’s biodiversity, efforts should be made to establish a joint management strategy to address the issue. 

“We need to look at the conservation policy and the best ways of tackling the threat to the forest and hope the Government will follow our recommendations,” he adds. The next phase of the project planned for September, if approved, will address conservation and management of biodiversity for rural livelihoods. And then perhaps Mr Miheso and Mama could begin grasping and be fully involved in the campaign to stop the plunder.